Planning a vacation to San Francisco? Our insiders put together a list of our top free things to do in San Francisco.
The City by the Bay can be a pretty pricey place to explore (and an even more expensive place to live!), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of high quality free attractions for you and your family to enjoy.
Our local experts put together a list of some of the best free things to do in San Francisco, all great suggestions that can help round out your vacation itinerary.
A Way to Save on Ticketed San Francisco Attractions
We know that this blog post is about listing the FREE things to do in San Francisco, but, are you looking to visit a few of the ticketed attractions during your vacation?
Consider using a Go San Francisco Card – which includes free admission to dozens of the area’s most popular attractions – all for one low price.
A Go San Francisco Card can save you up to 45% off combined admission vs paying at the gate.
If you’re interested in any aspect of the arts, why not stroll through one (or more) of San Francisco’s many famous art galleries?
Most are free to tour (with no pressure to buy!) and it’s a great way to explore the most recent developments in various artistic media. Some highlighted galleries include Ratio 3 and 47 Geary.
Cable Car Museum
A visit here is a great way to learn about the history of San Francisco’s famed cable cars. Housed in still-operational Washington-Mason carbarn and powerhouse, the museum contains no fewer than three 1870s cable cars, a series of fascinating historical photographs, and a number of mechanical artifacts.
Admission to the museum is totally free, although you may want to set aside a little cash for their fantastic gift shop.
This historic Civil War fort, perched above the Golden Gate Bridge, didn’t actually see any action during the conflict. However, it was intended to protect the harbor against Confederate forces and potential foreign attack, so it’s an impressive example of defensive fortifications, crafted in beautiful master brickwork.
It has since become famous as the setting for scenes a number of films, including Vertigo. Today it’s a National Park and is a great free thing to do in San Francisco.
Golden Gate Park
With a size to rival the more famous Central Park, this urban oasis is filled with cool green meadows, stately redwoods, and a great selection of fine cultural institutions.
Spend a day lounging on the grass with a picnic and tossing a frisbee, or take advantage of some of the periodic free events like weekly concerts and Shakespeare in the Park performances. Welcoming more than 13 million visitors each year, this part is a must-visit destination for any traveler to San Francisco.
This unique institution is located on Pier 45, so it’s easy to pop in during a day of strolling the waterfront neighborhoods.
Why visit? Well, where else can you see such a collection of bizarre and creepy artifacts? It’s a vintage arcade that specializes in weird games, housing more than 300 artifacts like antique slot machines, coin-operated pianos, and unnerving puppets.
Some games are actually playable (for a few paltry quarters), but you can stroll through the museum free of charge.
This totally free art-slash-nature museum is a great place to take the kids for an educational afternoon. The Randall Museum houses over 100 live animals, most of which have been brought there for rest and rehabilitation.
Since their collection of critters varies over time, you never know what to expect! As far as the artsy side goes, visit the “Creativity & Discovery Hand in Hand” exhibit for an in-depth look at the many programs and interactive events the museum offers.
For the littlest kids, the “Tree House Toddler Exploration Zone” is a must-see.
San Francisco Center for the Book
Literary types or fans of history will love a visit to this specialized institution. It’s a place dedicated to the preservation and celebration of this marvelous piece of technology – past, present, and future.
You’ll be able to scope out exhibits on the history of the book, participate any of their hundreds of annual workshops, and attend exciting events like book release parties, gallery talks, and exhibit opening receptions.
Most exhibits and gallery shows are totally free!
Stern Grove Festival
If you happen to be visiting San Francisco during the summer, be sure to check out the performance schedule for this popular outdoor festival.
Housed in a beautiful outdoor amphitheater, the Stern Grove Festival offers a diversity of events and performances like Rufus Wainwright, the San Francisco Opera, the San Francisco Ballet, OK Go, and the San Francisco Symphony.
All performances are totally free and a really fun thing to do. So bring a blanket and a picnic dinner and enjoy some quality music.
It goes without saying that the San Francisco Bay area is home to more beaches than you could visit in a day. A few of the most popular ones include:
- China Beach- provides shallow waters for young children
- Baker Beach- offers arguably the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge
- Ocean Beach- perfect for flying kites or having a romantic picnic in the sunshine
- Lands End- with accompanying hiking trails
San Francisco holds some of the most sought-after hiking spots in California:
- The Bay Trail- near the Redwood shores, this trail is a combination of gravel, dirt, or paved road and has a beautiful coastal view
- East Ridge Trail Loop- this East Bay gem is six miles of spectacular hills, grassy banks, and amazing redwood wood trees
- Mount Davidson- a combination of average and challenging hikes with a sensational view of the city
- Land’s End- breathtaking sites of the rugged coastline and the Golden Gate Bridge
Let’s Recap on How to Visit San Francisco for Cheap
So there are some fun ideas for free things to do in in San Francisco.
Remember, if you want to add some attractions to your itinerary that normally cost money, consider purchasing a Go San Francisco Card.
With the Go San Francisco Card you get free admission to dozens of attractions all for the one low price of the pass. You can save up to 45% off combined admission costs vs paying at the gate.